Looking for Coherence and Equity in Science Teaching

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 11, 2017 3 min read
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Say you are a science teacher. It’s likely that you are receiving information and advice about what content and strategies to use from a variety of sources: your state government, your school, your principal, a science teachers’ association, local informal education institutions like museums, or the internet. And the evaluation system you’re scored on may be asking you to prioritize separate, if related, sets of skills or practices than those you might find in any of these.

Adding to the confusion for some are the Next Generation Science Standards, which a growing number of states are adopting or using to inform their own standards. But there’s very little curriculum aligned to the standards, and the framework used to develop them represents a significant change in how many schools have taught science. (It focuses more on how scientists think and approach problems than on specific pieces of content.)

That’s why a new partnership among researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Washington, the Council of State Science Supervisors, and practitioners from 13 states is attempting to bring more coherence to science education, and to draw attention to inequities in schools across the country. The project, funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is called Advancing Coherent and Equitable Systems of Science Education—the acronym is ACESSE, pronounced Access.

“We want people to attend to that question: Is high-quality instruction in science happening everywhere?” said Bill Penuel, a professor of learning sciences and human development at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the principal investigators for the project.

“If you’re an elementary science teacher, you get guidance from a lot of places about how you should go about teaching science,” Penuel said. “The average teacher probably gets guidance from 10, 12, 13 sources, and they don’t always point in the same direction about what good, equitable teaching looks like.”

Penuel said that the barrage of messages about science education can present particular challenges for schools that are already struggling with accountability pressures or assessment systems. Struggling schools also tend to have higher teacher turnover.

“The highest-quality instruction is generally available in classrooms that aren’t under high levels of accountability pressure in science, and it’s often available to more advantaged groups of students,” Penuel said. In some elementary schools with high pressure on boosting students’ reading and math scores, he said, science is sometimes not taught at all.

Through the ACESSE project, the researchers have been meeting with state-level educators from 13 states to figure out what kinds of resources and networks would be helpful. The goal is to study what’s happening in the states and then respond with resources, professional development, and strategies.

In a press release, Oklahoma State Science Director Tiffany Neill, also a principal investigator on the project, said that through the project, “I’ve been able to have vital discussions in my state about how important it is that we critically analyze policies and initiatives to ensure they don’t pull in opposite directions from the main goals we’ve already set for science education.”

Penuel said the research group’s work will cover a variety of topics: It might produce a set of recommendations for evaluators to help them understand science education and especially how it looks with the Next Generation Science Standards. It might produce information about culturally responsive teaching or formative assessment in the sciences, or develop professional development resources on teaching science to English-language learners.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.